Cross-legged on the floor in the darkness of huts, close to the fire,
breathing the incense of copal, the woman sits with the furrowed brow and the
marked mouth of speech. Chanting her words, clapping her hands, rocking to and
fro, she speaks in the night of chirping crickets.
What is said is more concrete than ephemeral phantasmagoric lights: words are
materialisation’s of consciousness; language is a privileged vehicle of our
relation to reality. "Let us go looking for the tracks of the spirit",
the shamans say. "Let us go to the cornfield looking for the tracks of the
spirits' feet in the warm ground."
So then, let us too go walking ourselves along the path in search of
significance, following the words of two discourses registered like tracks on
magnetic tapes, then translated from the native tonal language, to discover and
explicitate what is said by an Indian medicine woman during such ecstatic
experiences of the human voice speaking with rhythmic force the realities of
life and society.
The elderly woman with her laughing moon face, dressed in a huipil,
the long dress, embroidered with flowers and birds, of the Mazatec women, a dark
shawl wrapped around her shoulders, her gray hair parted down the middle and
drawn into two pigtails, golden crescents hanging from her ears, bent forward
from where she knelt on the earthen floor of the hut and held a handful of
mushrooms in the fragrant, purifying smoke of copal rising from the glowing
coals of the fire, to bless them: known to the ancient Meso-Americans as the
Flesh of God, called by her people the Blood of Christ. Through their miraculous
mountains of light and rain, the Indians say that Christ once walked-it is a
transformation of the legend of Quetzalcoatl -and from where dropped his blood,
the essence of his life, from there the holy mushrooms grew, the awakeners of
the spirit, the food of the luminous one. Flesh of the world. Flesh of language.
In the beginning was the word and the word became flesh. In the beginning
there was flesh and the flesh became linguistic. Food of intuition. Food of
wisdom. She ate them, munched them up, swallowed them and burped; rubbed
ground-up tobacco along her wrists and forearms as a tonic for the body;
extinguished the candle; and sat waiting in the darkness where the incense rose
from the embers like glowing white mist. Then after a while came the
enlightenment and the enlivenment and all at once, out of the silence, the woman
began to speak, to chant, to pray, to sing, to utter her existence: (3)
My God, you who are the master of the whole world, what we want is to search
for and encounter from where comes sickness, from where comes pain and
affliction. We are the ones who speak and cure and use medicine. So without
mishap, without difficulty, lift us into the heights and exalt us.
From the beginning, the problem is to discover what the sickness is the sick
one is suffering from and prognosticate the remedy. Medicine woman, she eats the
mushrooms to disclose the hidden, to intuit how to resolve the unsolved: for an
experience of revelations.
The transformation of her everyday self is transcendental and gives her the
power to move in the two relevant spheres of transcendence in order to achieve
understanding: that of the other consciousness where the symptoms of illness can
be discerned; and that of the divine, the source of the events in the world.
Together with visionary empathy, her principal means of realisation is
articulation, discourse, as if by saying she will say the answer and announce
It is necessary to look and think in her spirit where it hurts. I must think
and search in your presence where your glory is, My Father, who art the Master
of the World. Where does this sickness come from? Was it a whirlwind or bad
air that fell in the door or in the doorway? So are we going to search and to
ask, from the head to the feet, what the matter is. Let's go searching for the
tracks of her feet to encounter the sickness that she is suffering from.
Animals in her heart? Let's go searching for the tracks of her feet, the
tracks of her nails. That it be alleviated and healed where it hurts. What are
we going to do to get rid of this sickness?
For the Mazatecs, the psychedelic experience produced by the mushrooms is
associated with the cure of illness. The idea of malady should be understood to
mean not only physical illness, but mental troubles and ethical problems. When
something is wrong the mushrooms are eaten. Until recent times, the mushrooms
were the only medicine the Indians had recourse to in times of sickness. Their
medicinal value is by no means merely magical, but chemical.
According to the Indians, cancer, and epilepsy have been alleviated by their
use; tumours cured. They have been found by the Indians to be particularly
effective for the treatment of stomach disorders and irritations of the skin.
The woman whose words we are listening to, like many, discovered her shamanistic
vocation when she was cured by the mushrooms of an illness: after the death of
her husband she broke out all over with pimples; she was given the mushrooms to
see whether they would "help" her and the malady disappeared. Since
then she has eaten them on her own and given them to others.
Unlike most shamanistic methods, the Mazatec shaman actually give medicine to
their patients: by means of the mushrooms they administer to them
physiologically, at the same time as altering their consciousness. It is
probably for psychosomatic complaints and psychological troubles that the
liberation of spontaneous activity provoked by the mushrooms is most remedial:
given to the depressed, they awaken a catharsis of the spirit; to those with
problems, a vision of their existential way. If they haven't come to the
conclusion that the illness is incurable, the shaman repeats the therapeutic
sessions three times at intervals. They also work over the sick, for their
intoxicated condition of intense, vibrant energy gives a strength to heal that
is exercised by massage and suction.
The most important function, however, is to speak for the sick one. The
Mazatec shamans eat the mushrooms that liberate the fountains of language to be
able to speak beautifully and with eloquence so that their words, spoken for the
sick one and those present, will arrive and be heard in the spirit world from
which comes benediction or grief. The function of the speaker, nevertheless, is
much more than simply to implore. The shaman has a conception of poesis
in its original sense as an action: words themselves are medicine. To enunciate
and give meaning to the events and situations of existence is life giving in
"The psychoanalyst listens, whereas the shaman speaks," points out
When a transference is established, the patient puts words into the mouth of
the psychoanalyst by attributing to him alleged feelings and intentions; in
the incantation, on the contrary, the shaman speaks for their patient. They
question the patient and put into their mouth answers that correspond to the
interpretation of the condition. The pre-requisite role of orator for the
shaman -establishes a direct relationship with the patient's unconscious. This
is the function of the incantation proper. The shaman provides the sick with a
language by means of which unexpressed and otherwise inexpressible
psychic states can be immediately expressed. And it is the transition to this
verbal expression -at the same time making it possible to undergo in an
ordered and intelligible form a real experience that would otherwise be
chaotic and inexpressible that induces the release of the physiological
process, that is, the reorganization, in a favourable direction, of the
process to which the sick person is subjected. (5)
These remarks of the French anthropologist become particularly relevant to
Mazatec shamanistic practice when one considers that the effect of the
mushrooms, used to make one capable of curing, is to inspire the shaman with
language and transform them into an oracle.
"That come all the saints, that come all the virgins," chants the
medicine woman in her sing-song voice, invoking the beneficent forces of the
universe, calling to her the goddesses of fertility, the virgins: fertile ones
because they have not been sowed and are fresh for the seed of men to beget
children in their wombs.
The Virgin of Conception and the Virgin of the Nativity. That Christ come and
the Holy Spirit. Fifty-three Saints. Fifty-three Saintesses. That they sit
down at her side, on her mat, on her bed, to free her from sickness.
The wife of the man in whose house she was speaking was pregnant and throughout
the session of creation, from the midst of genesis, her language as spontaneous
as her being that has begun to vibrate, she concerns herself with the emergence
of life, with the birth of an existence into that everyday social world that her
developing discourse expresses:
With the baby that is going to come there is no suffering, says. It's a matter
of a moment, there isn't going to be any suffering, says. From one moment to
another it will fall into the world, says. From one moment to another, we are
going to save her from her woe, says. That her innocent creature come without
mishap, says. Her elf, that is what it is called when it is still in the womb
of its mother. From one moment to another, that her innocent creature, her elf
"We are going to search and question," she says, "untie and
disentangle." She is on a journey, for there is distanciation and going
there, somewhere, without her even moving from the spot where she sits and
speaks. Her consciousness is roaming throughout existential space. Sibyl, seer,
and oracle, she is on the track of significance and the pulsation of her being
is like the rhythm of walking.
"Let us go searching for the path, the tracks of her feet, the tracks of
her nails. From the right side to the left side, let us look." To arrive at
the truth, to solve problems and to act with wisdom, it is necessary to find the
way in which to go. Meaning is intentional. Possibilities are paths to be chosen
between. For the Indian woman, footprints are images of meaning, traces of a
going to and from, sedimented clues of significance to be looked for from one
side to the other and followed to where they lead: indicators of directionality;
signs of existence.
The hunt for meaning is a temporal one, carried into the past and projected
into the future; "What happened?" she inquires, "What will
happen?" Leaving behind for what is ahead go the footprints between
departure and arrival: manifestations of human, existential ecstasis. And the
method of looking, from the right side to the left side, is the articulation of
now this intuition, fact, feeling or wish, now that, the intention of speaking
bringing to light meanings whose associations and further elucidations are like
the discovery of a path where the contents to be uttered are tracks to be
followed into the unexplored, the unknown and unsaid into which she adventures
by language, the seeker of significance, the questioner of significance, the
articulator of significance: the significance of existence that signifies with
signs by the action of speaking the experience of existence.
"Woman of medicines and curer, who walks with her appearance and her
soul," sings the woman, bending down to the ground and straightening up,
rocking back and forth as she chants, dividing the truth in time to her words:
emitter of signs. "She is the woman of the remedy and the medicine. She is
the woman who speaks. The woman who puts everything together. Doctor woman.
Woman of words. Wise woman of problems."
She is not speaking, most of the time, for any particular person, but for
everyone: all who are afflicted, troubled, unhappy, puzzled by the predicaments
of their condition. Now, in the course of her discourse, uttering realities, not
hallucinations, talking of existence in a communal world where the we is more
frequent than the I, she comes to a more general sickness and aggravation than
physical illness: the economic condition of poverty in which her people live.
"Let us go to the cornfield searching for the tracks of the feet, for
her poorness and humility. That gold and silver come," she prays. "Why
are we poor? Why are we humble in this town of Huautla?" That is the
paradox: why in the midst of such great natural wealth as their fertile,
plentiful mountains where waterfalls cascade through the green foliage of leaves
and ferns, should they be miserable from poverty, she wants to know. The daily
diet of the Indians consists of black beans and tortillas covered with red chili
sauce; only infrequently, at festivals, do they eat meat. White spots caused by
malnutrition splotch their red faces. Babies are often sick. It is wealth she
pleads for to solve the problem of want.
The mushrooms, which grow only during the season of torrential rains, awaken
the forces of creation and produce an experience of spiritual abundance, of an
astonishing, inexhaustible constitution of forms that identifies them with
fertility and makes them a mediation, a means of communion, of communication
between humanity and the natural world of which they are the metaphysical flesh.
The theme of the shamaness, mother and grandmother, woman of fertility, bending
over as she chants and gathering the earth to her as if she were collecting with
her hands the harvest of her experience, is that of giving birth, is that of
growth. Agriculturists, they are people of close family interrelationships and
many children: the clusters of neolithic thatch-roofed houses on the mountain
peaks are of extended family groups. The woman's world is that of the household,
her concern is for her children and all the children of her people.
"All the family, the babies and the children, that happiness come to
them, that they grow and mature without anything befalling them. Free them from
all classes of sickness that there are here in the earth. Without complaint and
with good will," she says, "so will come well-being, will come gold.
Then we will have food. Our beans, our gourds, our coffee, that is what we want.
That come a good harvest. That come richness, that come well-being for all of
our children. All my shoots, my children, my seeds," she sings.
But the world of her children is not to be her world, nor that of their
grandfathers. Their indigenous society is being transformed by the forces of
history. Until only recently, isolated from the modern world, the Indians lived
in their mountains as people lived in the Neolithic. There were only paths and
they walked everywhere they went. Trains of burros carried out the principal
crop –coffee -to the markets in the plain. Now roads have been built, blasted
out of rock and constructed along the edges of the mountains over precipices! to
connect the community with the society beyond. The children are people of
opposites: just as they speak two languages, Mazatec and Spanish, they live
between two times: the timeless, cyclical time of recurrence of the People of
the Deer and the time of progress, change and development of modern Mexico.
In her discourse, no stereotyped rite or traditional ceremony with prescribed
words and actions, speaking of everything, of the ancient and the modern, of
what is happening to her people, the woman of problems, peering into the future,
recognises the inevitable process of transition, of disintegration and
integration, that confronts her children: the younger generation destined to
live the crisis and make the leap from the past into the future. For them it is
necessary to learn to read and to write and to speak the language of this new
world and in order to advance themselves, to be educated and gain knowledge,
contained in books, radically different from the traditions of their own society
whose language is oral and unwritten, whose implements are the hoe, the axe, and
Also a book is needed, says. Good book. Book of good reading in Spanish, says.
In Spanish. All your children, your creatures, that their thought and their
custom change, says. For me there is no time. Without difficulty, let us go,
says. With tenderness. With freshness. With sweetness. With good will.
"Don't leave us in darkness or blind us," she begs the origins of
light, for in these supernatural modalities of consciousness there are dangers
on every hand of aberration and disturbance. "Let us go along the good
path. The path of the veins of our blood. The path of the Master of the World.
Let us go in a path of happiness." The existential way, the conduct of
one's life, is an idea to which she returns again and again. The paths she
mentions are the moral, physical, mental, emotional qualities typical of the
experience of animated conscious activity from the midst of which spring her
words: goodness, vitality, reason, transcendence, and joy. Seated on the ground
in the darkness, seeing with her eyes closed, her thought travels within along
the branching arteries of the bloodstream and without across the fields of
existence. There is a very definite physiological quality about the mushroom
experience which leads the Indians to say that by a kind of visceral
introspection they teach one the workings of the organism: it is as if the
system were projected before one into a vision of the heart, the liver, lungs,
genitals, and stomach.
In the course of the medicine woman's discourse, it is understandable that
she should, from astonishment, from gratitude, from the knowledge of experience,
say something about the mushrooms that have provoked her condition of
inspiration. In a sense, to speak of "the mushroom experience" is a
reification: the mushrooms are merely the means, in interaction with the
organism, the nervous system, and the brain, of producing an experience grounded
in the ontological-existential possibilities of the human, not simply to the
properties of a mushroom. The experience is psychological and social. What is
spoken of by the shamaness is her communal world; even the visions of her
imagination must have their origin in the context of her existence and the myths
of her culture. The subject of another society will have other visions and
express a different content in his discourse.
It would seem probable, however, that apart from emotional similarities,
coloured illuminations, and the purely abstract patterns of a universal
conscious activity, between the experiences of individuals with differing social
inherences, the common characteristic would be discourse, for judging by their
effect the chemical constituents of the mushrooms have some connection with the
linguistic centres of the brain. "So says the teacher of words," says
the woman, "so says the teacher of matters." It is paradoxical that
the rediscovery of such chemicals should have related their effects to madness
and pejoratively called them drugs, when the shamans who used them spoke of them
as medicines and said from their experience that the metamorphosis they produced
put one into communication with the spirit.
It is precisely the value of studying the use in ‘so-called’ primitive
societies of such chemicals, that the way can be found beyond the superficial to
a more essential understanding of phenomena which we, with our limited
conception of the rational, have too quickly, perhaps mistakenly, termed
irrational, instead of properly comprehending that such experiences are
revelations of a primordial existential activity, of "a power of
signification, a birth of sense or a savage sense." (6)
What are we confronted with by the shamanistic discourse of the mushroom
eaters? A modality of reason in which the logos of existence enunciates itself,
or by the delirium and incoherence of derangement?
"They are doing nothing but talk," says the medicine woman,
"those who say that these matters are matters of the past. They are doing
nothing but talk, the people who call them crazy mushrooms." They claim to
have knowledge of what they do not have any experience of; consequently their
contentions are nonsense: nothing but expressions of the conventionality the
mushrooms explode by their disclosure of the extraordinary; mere chatter if it
weren't for the fact that the omnipotent They forms the force of repression
which, by legislation and the implementation of authority, has come to
denominate infractions of the law and the code of health, the means of
liberation that once were called medicines.
In a time of pills and shots, of scientific medicine, the wise woman is
saying, the use of the mushrooms is not an anachronistic and obsolete vestige of
magical practices: their power to awaken consciousness and cure existential ills
is not any the less relevant now than it was in the past. She insists that it is
ignorance of our dimension of mystery, of the wellsprings of meaning, to think
that their effect is insanity.
"Good and happiness," she says, naming the emotions of her
activized, perceptualized being. "They are not crazy mushrooms. They are a
remedy, says. A remedy for decent people. For the foreigners," she says,
speaking of us, wayfarers from advanced industrial society, who had begun to
arrive in the high plazas of her people to experiment with the psychedelic
mushrooms that grew in the mountains of the Mazatecs. She has an inkling of the
truth, that what we look for is a cure of our alienations, to be put back in
touch, by violent means if necessary, with that original, creative self that has
been alienated from us by our middle-class families, education, and corporate
world of employment.
"There in their land, it is taken account of, that there is something in
these mushrooms, that they are good, of use," she says. "The doctor
that is here in our earth. The plant that grows in this place. With this we are
going to put together, we are going to alleviate ourselves. It is our remedy. He
that suffers from pain and illness, with this it is possible to alleviate him.
They aren't called mushrooms. They are called prayer. They are called
well-being. They are called wisdom. They are there with the Virgin, Our Mother,
the Nativity." The Indians do not call the mushrooms of light mushrooms,
they call them the holy ones. For the shamaness, the experience they produce is
synonymous with language, with communication, on behalf of her people, with the
supernatural forces of the universe; with plenitude and joyfulness; with
perception, insight, and knowledge. It is as if one were born again; therefore
their patroness is the Goddess of Birth, the Goddess of Creation.
With prayers we will get rid of it all. With the prayers of the ancients. We
will clean ourselves, we will purify ourselves with clear water. We will wash
our intestines where they are infected. That sicknesses of the body be gotten
rid of. Sicknesses of the atmosphere. Bad air. That they be gotten rid of,
that they be removed. That the wind carry them away. For this is the doctor.
For this is the plant. For this is the sorcerer of the light of day. For this
is the remedy. For this is the medicine woman, the woman doctor who resolves
all classes of problems in order to rid us of them with her prayers. We are
going with well-being, without difficulty, to implore, to beg, to supplicate.
Well being for all the babies and the creatures. We are going to beg, to
implore for them, to beseech for their well-being and their studies, that they
live, that they grow, that they sprout. That freshness come, tenderness,
shoots, joy. That we be blessed, all of us.
There are lulls when her voice slows down, fades out almost to a whisper; then
come rushes of inspiration, moments of intense speech; she yawns great yawns,
laughs with jubilation, claps her hands in time to her interminable singsong;
but after the setting out, the heights of ecstasy are reached, the intoxication
begins to ebb away, and she sounds the theme of going back to normal, everyday
conscious existence again after this excursion into the beyond, of rejoining the
ego she has transcended:
We are going to return without mishap, along a fresh path, a good path, a path
of good air; in a path through the cornfield, in a path through the stubble,
without complaint or any difficulty, we return without mishap. Already the
cock has begun to crow. Rich cock that reminds us that we live in this life.
The day that dawns is that of a new world in which there is no longer any need
to walk to where you go. "With tenderness and freshness, let us go in a
plane, in a machine, in a car. Let us go from one side to another, searching for
the tracks of the fists, the tracks of the feet, the tracks of the nails."
It seemed that she had been speaking for eight hours. The seconds of time
were expanded, not from boredom, but from the intensity of the lived experience.
In terms of the temporality of clocks, she had only been speaking for four hours
when she concluded with a vision of the transcendence that had become immanent
and had now withdrawn from her. "There is the flesh of God. There is the
flesh of Jesus Christ. There with the Virgin." The most frequently repeated
words of the woman were freshness and tenderness.